Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated!

I’ve hit the front page! OK, it’s only the Banbury and District Review, a freebie newspaper, but it’s still quite enough to mortify me! Not only is the picture a completely ghastly one (I am never photogenic but this one is all manic turquoise eyes, orange skin and a desperate need for a facelift!) but I am referred to as ‘Miss Harper’ throughout which a) sounds prissy b) surprises me by how much it annoys me seeing as I’ve been engaged in the challenge of marriage for 25 years! And – and – worst of all, the photo caption is ‘IN MEMORIAM Author Meg Harper and (inset) Valerie Whitaker’ – so there has been some concern that I am, in fact, no longer with us. (Given the ghastliness of the photo, that wouldn’t seem unlikely!) However, this is me, live and typing, and the dead person is, very sadly, Valerie, and joking aside, I have something quite serious to say about all this.
Why the front page? Well, you may remember from my ‘Lulu’ blog that I’ve recently published an anthology of stories and poems that was the result of a creative writing project last summer at The Mill Arts Centre where I work. It’s called Banbury Stories and the material was all inspired (loosely!) by Banbury’s history (surprisingly lurid, actually) and artefacts on display in Banbury Museum. We’re selling the book at The Mill and the museum, so of course we did a press release – and what were the press interested in? Not, of course, the actual stories and poems or indeed the living writers – but the fact that, very sadly, one of the writers, Valerie Whitaker, died shortly before we went to press, not having told any of us that she had terminal cancer. Since she was possibly the bravest and most positive person I have ever met, none of us guessed she was ill at all. She was still cheerfully exchanging notes on her new writing with one of the team just a couple of weeks before she died.
Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not dissing the publicity and I am delighted that Valerie has a little posthumous recognition; she was an excellent writer and far more committed to excellence than I am. But what’s going on here? You can bet your life that if Valerie hadn’t died, the whole project would hardly be considered newsworthy and we’d have a tiny bit of column space buried in the middle of the paper. I’m not denying that this is a poignant story. Believe me, the shock of Valerie’s death was severe and those of us who knew her well through the creative writing classes were very shaken. I feel awful that we didn’t get the book out earlier than we did and that Valerie never saw it. But to find the story is front page news for that reason is something I find vulgar and voyeuristic. Banbury Stories is a good little anthology – the stories and poems have value in themselves. Why is it suddenly more interesting because one of the writers has died? Since the newspaper article, two radio stations have been in touch with me wanting interviews as well.
I shouldn’t be surprised. We all know that if you have an interesting back-story, if there is something in your life that the media consider of interest, even if it is entirely irrelevant to your book, then it will help to sell it. The advice to play up your back story is so strong that one is frequently tempted to invent something.
There is no such thing as bad publicity of course (even if I’m cringing over that photo!) – but how sad, how very, very sad that our much respected fellow-writer’s death has been used as reader-bait. Maybe I’m too cynical – maybe the book really is seen as interesting enough in its own right to be seriously newsworthy.


AnneR said...

Meg, that is very sad - I can quite understand why you feel it is inappropriate and exploitative. It's also not very fair to the living authors. But with luck it will have the benefit that people who might otherwise not have found out about the anthology will now buy it and enjoy the writing of the contributors - living and dead - giving all the writers a wider audience than they might otherwise have found. Let's hope so. It may be some consolation to Valerie's family to know that her work at last found a community of readers.

Meg Harper said...

Yes - I agree, Anne. If it means more honour for Valerie that's great - and the other writers get more exposure as a result. Just sad that we live in a rather ghoulish society!